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Left Turns

By David Haldane

Feb. 20, 2020


It was the kind of announcement you don’t want to hear from a pilot. Especially one controlling the airplane on which you’re a passenger.

“Attention,” said the staticky voice of the man in the cockpit, “there’s good news and bad.” The good news, he went on, was that he would get us to our destination. The bad: that the airplane couldn’t turn right. “Fortunately,” the cheeky pilot concluded, “there are no right turns on the way to Manila.”

As the little plane rumbled down the runway toward takeoff from the tiny airport in Surigao City, I couldn’t help but think of a moth circling left over a drain.

We have an expression in America about highly resourceful people using “chewing gum” to fix things when nothing else is available. I can’t quite recall the first time I realized how handy Filipinos are with chewing gum; perhaps several years ago, before our expatriation, when my Filipino father-in-law came to live with us in Southern California.

He speaks very little English. We quickly learned to communicate, however, the first time I saw him dragging a huge TV set in a little red wagon across my front lawn. It seems that he’d been down the road for the weekly outdoor flea market and seen an offer that he couldn’t refuse.

Let me say at the outset that I’m not opposed to television. Truth be told, I myself have spent more than a few happy hours in front of a TV set or two. This one, however, was quite different from the ones to which I’m accustomed; for starters, it was almost as big as a  Volkswagen and probably more than thirty years old. On top of it sat a flimsy-looking set of rabbit ears, the kind I hadn’t seen in ages. And when we plugged it in and turned the damn thing on, well, let’s just say that the picture wasn’t much better than when it was unplugged.

But taped to the glass of that pitch-black screen was a small white sign that told the whole story. “FREE,” it said, written in what appeared to be the shaky hand of someone cleaning house. And what better way to get rid of a useless old fixture than by leaving it at the side of the road? I don’t know about other Filipinos, but for my father-in-law it was a deal made in heaven.

“But it’s a piece of old junk,” I argued. “Why should we be storing other people’s junk?”

“I can fix,” he insisted.

And so, it came to pass that we now have a working TV set – albeit almost as old as me – installed under the patio awning of our house in California. There are other examples of such thriftiness involving my father-in-law and his ilk. One that comes to mind involves the huge argument we had before moving from the city to the desert.

It all had to do with a set of ancient bar stools whose seats had long since rotted out. For me, the solution was simple; throw them away and buy a new pair. But he had a different idea, insisting that we take them along. He also persuaded me, against my better judgment, to keep a smelly backyard woodpile that I hadn’t noticed in years. The upshot? Bar stools, naturally, with nicely fitted wooden seats adorning the spaces around our new Jacuzzi.

Believe me, I get it. The Philippines, after all, is a developing country where new goods are often difficult to obtain, especially in the provinces, and therefore out of reach for folks like my wife’s father. So, they make do with what they have by figuring out ingenious – if sometimes tedious – ways of using things forever. The cardinal rule among provincials; never, under any circumstances, throw anything away.

Which brings us back to that airplane in Surigao. We’d been sitting on the tarmac for maybe an hour when the first announcement had come; our takeoff was delayed due to a “problem with the controls.” But the flight wouldn’t be cancelled, an attendant assured us; kindly return to the terminal until the plane could be fixed.

Two hours later they ushered us back aboard with the somewhat startling news that the airplane could only turn left. And, sure enough, ninety minutes after that we landed safely in Manila having made, as far as I could tell, not a single right turn.

All of which left me both impressed and utterly terrified. The only significant unanswered question: exactly what brand of chewing gum did those resourceful mechanics use?

I seriously doubt that I will ever know.


David Haldane is the author of an award-winning memoir called “Nazis & Nudists.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an American journalist, essayist and radio broadcaster whose 2018 story of the California desert garnered a Golden Mike award in feature reporting. He recently moved to Mindanao with his Filipino wife and their nine-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that great adventure. http:///



Published Originally in Mindanao Gold Star Daily



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